Otis Davis Interview

Otis Davis, 1960 gold medalist for Oregon track, feels his destiny’s fulfilled



Otis Davis, Oregon sprinter 1958-60, was a walk on athlete under the legendary coach Bill Bowerman, who went on to break the world record in the Mens 400 meters to win gold at the Olympics in Rome in 1960. (Chris Pietsch/The Register-Guard)


Long before Steve Prefontaine and Nike, Vin Lananna and TrackTown USA, Alberto Salazar and Ashton Eaton, there was an Oregon basketball player watching a track and field practice from his dorm room window across from Hayward Field.

“I can do that,” he thought to himself.

Two years later, Otis Davis was Oregon’s first Olympic gold medalist when he set the world record in the 400 meters at the 1960 Olympics in Rome, becoming the first man to run under 45 seconds at 44.9. So he left his room, crossed the street and walked right up to the legendary Bill Bowerman himself and, with no experience in track and field whatsoever, asked to join the team.

“They didn’t think any human could go that fast, and I didn’t either!” Davis said. “If you can imagine, I was still learning how to run in different lanes.”

Davis, 83, was in Eugene last weekend to receive the 2015 Distinguished Alumni Award. Now living in Union City, N.J., it was his first time back in 20 years.

Standing on the second floor balcony of The Bowerman Building, Davis marvelled at the beauty of Hayward Field on the sunny, fall morning — most notably its state-of-the-art track surface, much different from the cinder tracks he used to run on.

“I bet it feels like you’re running downhill,” Davis exclaimed. “Hayward Field brought out the best in me. The weather and everything, I don’t know, something mysterious about it,”

Davis was raised by his grandmother in Tuscaloosa, Ala., near the University of Alabama campus, which remained segregated until 1963. He served four years in the Air Force during the Korean War before enrolling at Oregon as a member of the basketball team with a dream of playing professionally in that sport.

Then came his impromptu meeting with Bowerman in 1958.

“He said ‘What do you do?’” Davis recalled.

Without an answer, Bowerman had Davis try the high jump (he cleared 6 feet, 1 inch) and the long jump (he went 24-0) before lining him up with the Ducks’ sprinters in the 100 and 220.

“I was like a kid in the candy store,” Davis said.

In 1959, Davis was moved to the 400 and became an instant success, finishing third at the U.S. Olympic Track & Field Trials in 1960 to earn his ticket to Rome.

Going into the Olympic finals, the favorite was undefeated German star Carl Kaufmann. Davis got off to a slow start, but then the adrenaline kicked in and Davis took off.

“Whoever was going to win that was going to have to go by me. I just felt good,” Davis said. “I normally had trouble running that first 200 because I didn’t know how to warm up ... but I just took over.”

Davis and Kaufmann crossed the finish line together, with Davis leaning in to break the tape with his torso and Kaufmann diving across head first.

The photo finish caused a delay in the official results being announced, but Davis had no doubt.

“I broke the tape then I saw his head,” Davis said. “I knew I won. They didn’t, but I did, because I broke the tape. I knew enough about track to know that.”

Davis would also win a gold medal as a member of the 4x400 relay team that summer. He remains the Ducks’ only two-time Olympic gold medalist. Mac Wilkins also won gold in the discus in 1976, Joaquim Cruz won the 800 for Brazil in 1984, and Eaton won gold in the decathlon in 2012.

Davis’ Oregon record of 45.07 stood for 52 years until Mike Berry ran 44.91 in 2011. Berry later lowered his mark to 44.75.

Davis is member of the National Track and Field Hall of Fame and Oregon Hall of Fame.

When his track career ended a few years after the Olympics, Davis put his degree to work as a teacher, guidance counselor, truant officer, coach, mentor and role model to kids, many of whom came from underprivileged or single-family homes.

Being an Olympic champion certainly helped his credibility.

“When you do something of note, they really believe you,” Davis said. “And when you go through what I have gone through, segregation and things like that, when you are deprived of the necessities in life ... look at the University of Alabama, I was 15 minutes from there and I couldn’t even go. When the kids see me, they know I’m feeling their pain, My father, I saw him only once in a while, and when I saw him it was just great. If he gave me a dollar, it was like $50 because that was my dad.

“I’m fulfilling a destiny I never imagined I had. If I had played basketball, I never would have done this.”